Successful business Plan Tips
The Secret to Write A Successful business Plan
As a small business mentor,
I meet many entrepreneurs who are interested in launching a business, growing a business, or starting a nonprofit. Here are three typical client stories:
Fred came into our mentoring session with a big smile and his laptop fired up. After introductions, I asked how I could help him. He started waving his hands and said with obvious pride that he was quitting his job as a mid-level accountant in a big manufacturing company and was planning to open a bed and breakfast that catered to company off-site meetings in a resort community two hours away. He further mentioned that his goals were to earn $1 million, be his own boss, and set his own schedule. Many thoughts were going through my mind on how to respond to this news, but what I said was, “Do you have a business plan?”
I knew that if Fred could write a quality business plan that would convince a bank to lend the $275,000 he needed to buy the B&B, he would realize that, as founder and CEO, he would work for and be subject to the demands and schedules of his customers, employees, vendors, and the weather. In addition, he would see that to be a successful B&B proprietor, he would need passion and persistence, along with a product/service that was differentiated from competitors.
I added that a good plan addresses the seemingly perverse question of how you’re going to handle unanticipated situations. Ann told me about the marketing company she founded 20 years ago. She was facing difficult market conditions, and hence cash flow shortfalls, as traditional clients were spending less and finding alternatives for her services, particularly online and offshore. She hoped to continue in the business for another 10 years and then transfer it to her son who worked as a researcher in the company.
Ann talked about how the business had changed from when she started it.
She was sure she needed a strategic plan but did not know where to start.
Again, many thoughts were going through my mind, and I asked her if she had a budget and a vision/goal for where she would like to take the business.
I knew that if she had a good grasp on her current situation and a feel for the future, became more comfortable with financial and analytical tools, and learned more about current marketing trends, a business plan process in which Ann would lead and involve her key staff would provide a firm bridge from today to tomorrow.
Bob, Larry, and Barbara were very excited to tell me about their idea of how to share their gospel through song and get paid for their weekend passion of singing at youth groups associated with their church. They would form a nonprofit, receive a salary and benefits, and build equity, and it would all be funded through grants and donations. They already had a lot of experience on the types of music that were of interest.
Again, I had many thoughts. I asked how they planned to structure their operation, and they replied they had already agreed among themselves who would hold what position and how decisions would be made. I further asked about their board of directors, and they responded with, “What board of directors?”
I knew if we could work together on a business plan, Bob, Larry, and Barbara would learn much about the intricacies and legalities of forming and operating a nonprofit. Among other things, they would learn that a nonprofit’s assets/equity do not belong to the founders, it is not the only organizational design for entrepreneurs who want to contribute to their communities, and it has of two sets of customers—the people being served and the people providing the funding. Maybe the way to start was with a feasibility study.
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Who This Book Is For:
These are three true stories, though the names have been changed. Are you in a similar position of planning to start a business, growing an existing business, or starting a nonprofit?
What these entrepreneurs have in common is the need to develop the knowledge and plans to guide them to a successful business launch and operation.
While this learning and planning process takes many forms, shapes, and levels of intensity, it is all considered part of the business planning process.
If you are in a situation similar to any of our three stories, this book is written for you. It is for entrepreneurs who are thinking of starting a small business or nonprofit and for small business owners who want to grow an existing business or solve an operating problem. This book will also help if you are looking for assurance that you are headed in the right direction, seeking help with a section of your business plan that you do not understand, feeling that a section of your business plan is not robust enough and want pointers, or wanting to learn where and how to apply for funding. Entrepreneurs should always surround themselves with mentors and advisors, so you will also find ideas on where to find these valuable resources.
Lessons Learned I have been involved in for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations for more than 40 years. With this experience and a successful track record, I started mentoring small businesses, and for the past 11 years, I have been with SCORE, a nationwide nonprofit engaged in training, educating, and counseling entrepreneurs to help them start and grow profitable businesses. SCORE was formed in 1964 and has grown to more than 300 chapters. Its business model is based on volunteers, and it has over 10,000 volunteers assisting for-profit and nonprofit entrepreneurs.
During my years as a SCORE mentor, I have counseled more than 1,200 entrepreneurs—many of them repeatedly. Also, I am an angel investor, which allows me to be both mentor and investor. T
Throughout my career, I have either written, presented, or helped others with their business plans. Now I am on the receiving end of entrepreneurs seeking equity financing. During these SCORE client mentoring sessions and in my angel investments, I have gained firsthand knowledge and have seen what works and what doesn’t for entrepreneurs and potential funders.
I have seen how entrepreneurs face the challenge of writing a business plan and how intimidating it is to sit down and commit to paper an idea they have been considering for some time. I have also been witness to the mistaken belief entrepreneurs have that every business plan must be exactly like the 30-page, one-size-fits-all templates freely available on many websites rather than adapting these templates to their specific situations.
On the contrary, every business plan must answer certain fundamental questions that pertain to your specific business:
Who is your audience?
Are you writing the business plan for yourself, for others in your organization, or for an external audience? What is your time frame?
Do you need external funding?
What is your competitive position and strength?
What is your value proposition?
These and other considerations will shape the design of your business plan.
Finally, I have seen the tension the entrepreneur faces when making forecasts—keep it conservative for yourself, but for a potential funder, make it robust so the funder will see this is a good business to invest in or lend to. The recent “Great Recession” and the slow recovery have been the impetus for many business plans. Many talented people who have been out of work for extended periods and need to generate cash flow are considering starting a business. Smart people with energy and a contribution to make, who never thought of starting their own business, need some place to turn for trusted advice.
While the “Great Recession” may be officially over, many businesses and nonprofits continue to experience cash flow challenges, as the changing economy plays havoc with sales, collections, and donations. Banks have increased their lending standards so small business loans are more difficult to achieve.
Even fully collateralized lines of credit with banks that people have done business with for many years are a challenge. These businesses need a way to express their situation and prospects, and often the best venue for this discussion is a business plan.
Many small businesses have successfully weathered their first few years and are now poised to grow to the next level; this is another reason to write a business plan. As the baby boomers reach retirement age, they are considering what new challenges to take on and how to help society.
Sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch in a year-round pleasant climate is not an option or a desire for many baby boomers. They are considering forming nonprofits that tap the skills they have learned over a career; it is their time to “give back.” How This Book Is Structured The book is organized into four sections. T
The first section will help you gain a good understanding of what a business plan is and is not about, where to find help, how to get started, and some do’s and don’ts.
The second section gets down to the core of writing the plan, devoting a chapter to exploring each of the main elements of the business plan in detail.
The third section covers the all-important topic of raising money by exploring methods of obtaining funding. Finally, the fourth section contains topics of interest to established business owners, but start-up entrepreneurs should read these as well to see what lies ahead and get prepared.
Along the way, you’ll find “It’s Like This” boxes—real-life examples that I and my SCORE mentor colleagues have encountered during our many years of mentoring. These examples illustrate the topic being discussed
(of course, identities and proprietary information have been protected).
At the end of each chapter, you will find a summary of “Key Lessons.”
Throughout the book, there are many references to websites for additional information; please be alert that website addresses change, so you might need to search for the organization if the URL is outdated. Lastly, recognizing that adults like to learn in increments and have all the information about a subject at hand, I have included everything in the relevant chapter and have not used appendices.
Therefore, you do not need to read the book in one sitting.
You can read a section at a time, put the book down, and come back—in essence, this will be your reference source. As learning is better achieved through interaction, you will gain more from the material if you think about, research, and make notes as you progress through the chapters. That’s why there’s a worksheet at the end of each chapter titled “Your Turn,” where you can write your thoughts. By the end of the book, collect your comments, and you will have a good start to your business plan. In this manner, you will write your business plan incrementally rather than trying to tackle the whole plan at one time. The “Your Turn” worksheets are also available to complete online or to download from the SCORE website
To make this discussion a reasonable size, I have kept the focus on preparing a business plan in a logical manner, with enough information to provide an appreciation of what needs to be included and the options you may consider.
For the details, I trust you will use reference books and material freely available on many websites.
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For example, I do not address how to hire, fire, and pay employees; obtain vendors; develop a manufacturing plan; do accounting; secure a patent; and so on.
All these subjects are covered in a business plan, but you need to do your homework in these areas to gain enough knowledge so you can put together a reasonable plan. However, in areas where I have found the reference material lacking or entrepreneurs have many questions, I have provided more information.
For instance, I have included details on how to structure your company with implications for filing taxes, marketing, and financial reporting. Hal’s 12 Commandments for
Writing a Business Plan Through my experience with writing and reading business plans and investing in ventures based on these business plans, I have developed knowledge and opinions on what makes an effective business plan.
Following are my 12 Commandments for writing a business plan; I will continually come back to these themes throughout the book.
A business plan is a marketing action.
A well-thought-out and presented business plan demonstrates to yourself and others that you are serious about your business idea, you have the passion and persistence to develop the strategies and tactics so your business idea will be successful, and you have conconverted a general idea into a realistic and believable business. Know your audience, and write the plan in a style and with information they need for the action(s) you want them to take.
To achieve the decisions and actions you wish taken, you must provide your readers with the information in a style they are familiar with and can understand. Maybe this is your banker, angel investor, biggest client, prospective employee or board member, or just yourself. Make it easy for readers to take positive actions—make your case in their language.
Business planning should focus on the customer, not on the entrepreneur.
For-profit businesses and nonprofits alike are established to fulfill
a customer/client/society need. The better the need is served or problem solved, the more successful the entity can be. Therefore, focus on satisfying the customer/client need and demonstrating how you are doing it uniquely from the competition.
A small business is usually a bet on the entrepreneur, so provide a biography that demonstrates you have the technical and leadership experience to drive your idea to success. Either demonstrate you have the experience or you have surrounded yourself with others who have it. Financiers, a personal friend, a stern banker, or a demanding angel know they are investing in you as the owner. You are contributing most of the “assets”—your time, talents, and passion for birthing this business idea into the marketplace. Your biography, therefore, should not be just a LinkedIn-type listing of your education and previous positions. Instead, make the case for why you are the right person at the right time to own, lead, and operate this business.
The executive summary is the most important plan section. It delivers the message and sets the tone. It should be enthusiastic, concise, professional, and no more than two pages long. Just as in the first few paragraphs of any book, many people will not read past the opening section if they lose interest. In these first two pages, you need to convince the reader that this business idea will be successful by describing what customer needs are being fulfilled, how this business idea sets itself apart from all the other competing alternatives in the marketplace, and the financial and other rewards to be obtained. Focus on writing this compelling short story in two pages or less. As a summary, it should be written last; this ensures it represents the full plan.
The second commandment was about knowing your reader, and one place this comes into play is in the executive summary. You might have different versions, depending on who the reader is.
For example, a banker may be more interested in the stability and reliability of projected cash flows while an angel investor may more interested in market penetration and sales growth. Have sales goals that are supported by research and an actionable marketing plan.
This is your first and most important sales job. Where and how are you going to capture revenue?
Describe your sales revenue goals, make a convincing argument, and provide tangible support—names of first prospects, sales pitch, competitive analysis, market awareness, and so on. If the argument and support are not convincing, then the banker, angel investor, vendor, or customer will arbitrarily give the sales goals a “haircut,” which will result in a decrease in cash flow
(and maybe doom their investment participation)—and you will not be in the room to defend your analysis. Request funding in the amount you truly need, and support your request with financial statements.
A funding request supported by financial statements (cash generation and expenditures) demonstrates you have thoroughly thought through the business and you consider the financial aspects important.
This provides some assurance that you will look out for the best interests of those providing funding.
Use of funding proceeds should be primarily for marketing, sales, and product development activities that will generate the products, services, and sales. Investors assume you will contribute “sweat equity.” While some of the funding may be needed for critical staff salaries, the majority should be used for activities that will generate sales. A growing sales pattern with positive net margins means you will have the cash flow to pay back loans and eventually have a sellable business. Examples of typical funding requests are for protectable/proprietary software development, product production equipment, and marketing programs with a direct or channel partner sales focus. Surround yourself with advisors and mentors, and talk through your business ideas with them. Starting and growing a business is difficult, and more than half of all startups fail in their first five years.
No one person can have all the knowledge, experience, or even perspective to handle every business situation. Gain from the skills and experiences of others. Ask for advice from similar companies in different geographic markets or noncompeting suppliers in your same market segment. Talk with experts in areas such as marketing, sales, finance, and operations. Join industry groups or entrepreneur mastermind teams. Express your questions and roadblocks, and then listen openly. You will feel less isolated and confused, and investors will feel confident you have a complete team of resources to grow the business. Often, family and friends are not able to provide the kind of feedback and advice you need. Some people find it difficult or do not know how to ask for help; just try it, and you will be pleasantly surprised how willing others are to assist.
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A business plan is never perfect and never finished, so do not procrastinate writing it or obsess about creating the ideal plan. At some point, you need to stop writing and start satisfying a customer need and making money. Set a personal deadline, stop planning, and get to work. It is all about the money. Every decision and action you take will have a financial impact—be it cash flow or profit. While many entrepreneurs have multiple bottom lines (lifestyle, mission, causes they believe in, and so on), if you do not have sufficient financial resources, you will not be able to accomplish your mission and goals, or even stay in business. Sometimes this singular fact helps cut through the fog of what to focus on next. Focus, Focus, Focus. You will triple the value of your plan and dramatically improve your credibility with a potential funder if you can answer these three questions clearly and thoroughly both in your text and financials: What are the three to five Critical Success Factors (CSFs), or keys to success, on which you are going to focus most of your time and attention in “getting them right”?
What are the three to five goals (objectives) you are going to achieve over the next 12 to 18 months?
They should be tied to the CSFs. Spell them out this way:
SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented, Realistic, and Time-Bound). What are the strategies you are going to follow to achieve your SMART goals? What are the steps, processes, actions, and milestones, and who is responsible for making it happen?
For every goal, there must be measurable action steps for achieving it.
A Book of a Different Color At Amazon there are hundreds of business plan books. My initial thoughts were, Does the market need another book in this space?
The more I thought about it, the more I decided that with my unique background, I could add insights and examples not provided by others. I fully understand that every business decision you make has a financial impact and affects your cash flow.
Even with hundreds of business planning books available, start-up success rates are not improving, so the message needs to be delivered in a different way. What differentiates this book from competing titles is that it offers practical, actionable advice that is grounded in the reality of my having prepared hundreds of business plans. It is not just academic, and it is not overly focused on the mechanics of filling out the forms, such as those books that provide a template or CD.
Here you will find a good balance of the why and the how, along with stories from a long, successful track record. So, without further ado, let’s get started by having you fill out the first of the “Your Turn” worksheets.
BUSINESS PLAN BASICS
In this section, you will discover what a business plan is and why you need to write one, best practices that should be consulted both before and after you write your business plan, and information on where to get help (much of which is free) with preparing your business plan.
BUSINESS PLANS 101
What Is a Business Plan and Why Do You Need One? Many consider a business plan to be a formal document containing five key elements: 1) business goals, 2) the reasons why these goals are attainable, 3) a plan for reaching those goals, 4) data backing the uniqueness of the products and services to be sold, and supporting information about the organization and team attempting to reach those goals.
A business plan is comprised of these elements, but it is much more than a physical document; it is a structured process to test ideas to determine if they are feasible and financially attractive. Viewed this way, a business plan becomes a road map to successful implementation of the business idea. This road map then morphs into tactical plans and budgets.
During the process of developing a business idea, you develop a consistent set of messages, based on facts and analysis, describing your business idea, which will be used in discussions with funders, investors, customers, board members, advisors, vendors, and employees. Some events that trigger the need to write a business plan include: Starting a new business (the classic reason) Growing an existing business through new products, new channels, and/or new markets Acquiring a business or franchising your existing business Exiting from the business and the need to provide potential buyers with information about the company.
They will be interested in the past as a benchmark, but as you have already reaped the benefits of these accomplishments, potential buyers are interested in the future as you see it. What is the potential they may buy into?
What It Is Not Now you know what a business plan is and what it is used for.
But what is the flip side? Clearly, a business plan is not a guarantee that your business idea will be successful or that you will be able to obtain funding. Since most of the information is forward-looking, it will only be as good as the assumptions used, and if the idea is not well packaged and supported in the business plan, some readers might have different perceptions of these forecasts.
When you do a web search on why you should write a business plan, in many cases, fear is invoked that if you do not have a professionally prepared business plan, you will incur the wrath of the banks and possibly regulators. Many times this type of draconian advice comes from sites that want to sell you a business plan template, write the plan for you, or sell you a book.
The reality is that two-thirds of start-ups do not seek third-party funding, so the plan is likely written for yourself and can be of whatever quality you think appropriate. However, the more attention you give to the plan and the planning process, the more that potential weaknesses can be identified and mitigations put in place, so the better your chances of business success. Are We Done Yet?
A business plan is ever evolving. It is never finished, just as your business is not static. Your goals and approaches change as your business changes. However, this is no excuse not to write a business plan. If you are starting a business in an area in which you are unfamiliar, you might start with a feasibility plan, which is a toned-down business plan, to test the idea and to gain experience in the area.
You will be amazed at how much the original idea changes as you become more familiar with the business. Conversely, a person can become obsessed with writing a business plan—always striving for perfection. But there is no such thing as a perfect business plan. At some point, you have to stop planning and start working. Remember the old axiom “analysis paralysis”—don’t do it. If you are a start-up and are still working on your business plan after two months of concentrated effort or six months with part-time attention, then you need to examine your process and get some help or change your helpers. Maybe you are not sufficiently focused, do not have enough industry experience, have hit some walls, or do not have the time or energy to be a business owner right now. If you are in business, your ideas for growth or issue resolution are probably current events, and as time is money, you need to implement the changes quickly to not miss a market opportunity or preserve your cash flow. Sometimes aiming for perfection leads to very rigid plans and forecasts.
Your business and the market are ever changing, so you need some flexibility, maybe a “plan B,” just in case. See Chapter 25, “Limber Up,” for an in-depth discussion on maintaining some flexibility. Who Is a Business Plan Written For? Although most people think the goal of business plans is to seek funding, ultimately, a business plan is written primarily for yourself—to help you decide whether or not to start or grow a business, to set goals and benchmarks, to use the process for developing a set of compelling and consistent messages describing your business and why you will be successful, and to understand the two roles you have as owner and employee.
To amplify these points, as a business owner, you have been thinking about a product or service and how it will satisfy a customer need with much of your focus on market dynamics. When you put together a business plan and its financial section, you will determine if these ideas are financially viable. When you put together the operating, marketing, and organization business plan sections, you will better understand everything involved with running the business and if this is what you really want to do. A good business plan is much more than an assembly of independent fact finding and analysis; it integrates all business aspects and clarifies how one part affects the other:
Your executive summary will include succinct statements defining your busibusiness, what customer need you are satisfying, how your product or service is different from the competition, and why you will be successful. The operational and financial forecasts you build into your business plan will be your first set of targets, which you will measure your actual results and accomplishments against.
Through your research of competitive practices, you will benchmark your forecasted results against industry norms. In your small business, you most likely will have two distinct roles and receive two types of financial compensation—as an employee for which your labor should be appropriately compensated and as an owner receiving a return on the invested capital and risks of being in business. Each of these relationships should be addressed in your business plan and in your determination of the feasibility and viability of your business idea.
At the beginning, it is common for both these roles to have no or small monetary rewards. As a small business owner, you are or soon will be working 60 to 100 hours a week and still not getting everything done.
Business Plans for Dummies, :Audible
If you will be working this hard, you want to make sure it will be worth the effort. Again, this is where a business plan comes in. In the process of developing a business plan, you use research, analysis, and estimates to project future results.
If you follow your assumptions and obtain the projected results, will you like the answer?
For example, if you project that you will earn $20,000 a year, is that good news?
It is good that the number is positive; however, if you live in a large city, have family financial obligations, and are paying off bills and saving for retirement, and plan to make this your full-time activity, it is unlikely you will be satisfied with $20,000. Wouldn’t it be good to know this before you invested too much in a business?
A secondary reason to prepare a business plan is to demonstrate that you are serious about starting a business and the activity is not a hobby. According to IRS regulations (section 183 of the tax code), as long as you generated profit in three of the past five years, it is a business; otherwise the IRS may claim it is a hobby. If this occurs, all revenues received continue to be taxable, but your expense deductions are limited. As many start-ups have losses in the early years, you need to protect self if there is an IRS audit. Business Plan Myths Following are three popular myths about business plans: Once written, it does not need to be updated.
On the contrary, your business plan is probably out of date the day after it is written. This is due to the changing nature of business, competitors’ actions and reactions, changing market conditions, use of estimates, your accomplishments, and your desires to take the next steps. (See Chapter 24, “A Second Look,” for a more in-depth discussion of when is the best time to review your business plan.)
Every business plan has the same format and is 30 pages long.
This is the template found on many websites.
But it is inaccurate.
There are effective two-page, graphics-centered business plans that are used for established businesses that want to focus on a particular area, like marketing, and need to make sure goals and action plans are aligned.
Also, a one-person service business, which does not need third-party funding, may only need a business plan that is no longer than 10 pages and focuses on the messages and marketing. Fred, Ann, and Bob, the trio who wanted to start a nonprofit in the introduction, will also have a distinct type of business plan, since they have different situations and needs.
A 30-page business plan with lots of financial information will get the bank loan needed to start or grow a business. A business plan is just one of several criteria for getting a banker to review your loan application.
Other criteria, and probably with as much weight, are your personal credit score, your ability to collateralize the loan, providing about 20 to 25 percent of the needed capital, and having projected cash flow about 1.3 times the annual debt service. In addition, if your two-page executive summary is not well done, your banker might not read any further. Likewise, a 10-page PowerPoint presentation supported by a 30-page business plan is no guarantee you will receive angel funding.
WHAT’S YOUR STYLE?
Finding What Type of Plan Is Right for You Maybe the first business plans were written on clay tablets by the ancient Sumerians, when they were writing about trading and livestock; but the originator of the modern-day business plan is often credited as Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours. Here’s the short story: Before Samuel and his son Éleuthère Irénée left their native France in 1799 to build a gunpowder mill in Delaware, they wrote numerous letters to potential investors that offered a plan on how the mill would make money. Clearly, this was a business plan that worked. Samuel and his son secured their investors, and today their business is known as the DuPont Co. Today’s business plan styles range from informal, back-of-the-envelope sketches to two-page, near-term road maps to 30-page plans with illustrations and exhibits. Which style you choose depends on a number of factors, but common to all styles is a clear message. Start-Up Business Plans For a simple start-up requiring no third-party funding, create a short, 10-page informal plan to first convince yourself that the idea is feasible and financially viable, then use it to possibly convince friends and family who are usually the first round of support and funding.
If the plan is just for you, then you do not have to include all the things you know, such as your form of organization, contact information, organizational chart, graphics, and a lengthy bio. As with a GPS system in your car, you do not have to be reminded how to leave your neighborhood. However, you should include your marketing plan, a shortened version of your bio, a financial summary in a format that will help you track your business performance, and the important message of what differentiates your product or service from the competition—what customer problem you are solving that is not already provided by the competition. Bob, Larry, and Barbara followed this approach, first starting with a feasibility study described later in Chapter 6, including the specifics for nonprofits outlined in Chapter 15.
If you are a start-up seeking bank or equity funding, you will want a formal, lengthy plan tending toward the stereotyped 30-page model. Start with a simpler version, and expand it as your idea matures through experience from talking with others in the field, finding a mentor to discuss key issues with, and talking with potential funders on what they look for and require. Speak with potential customers about what they are looking for in a product/service and how they go about making a buying decision. Include all the items discussed in the simple plan mentioned above.
Remember Fred from the introduction—he took this approach in developing his B&B business plan. Plans for Existing Businesses For established businesses, start with a short plan, emphasizing mission and goals, to ensure the venture is headed in the right direction for the next year.
If you are planning to grow your business, focus on markets, products, and services, in addition to having sufficient resources and any necessary funding.
If you are solving an operating issue, focus on that particular matter, such as staffing, cash flow (expense reduction, collections, pricing), operations, vendors, etc. Ann, mentioned in the introduction, followed this approach for her marketing company, focusing on customer needs and her staff resources to assist customers, including her employees’ knowledge and experience of current marketing best practices.
Let’s look at a practical example of a brief, but focused, business plan for an existing business. An existing business that is focusing on increasing sales may determine after talking with its customers, assessing its competition, and conducting research that it needs to enhance the awareness of its products and services in the marketplace and, in particular, the online marketplace. In this situation, a two-page business plan might be ideal for focusing on marketing and the connection between objectives, goals, initiatives, and actions.
This type of plan can be presented in an all-graphic layout that might look like this: Objectives: One objective might be “Everyone knows we are here to provide quality products and services.” A second objective could be “Our customers are fully satisfied with their purchases.” Goals: For the first objective of “Everyone knows we are here to provide quality products and services,” two goals might be one.
Plan-as-You-Go Business Plan Another approach to business planning is to plan as you go. We have all heard stories of the college student who, having no business experience of any kind, creates a product/service in his dorm room or parents’ garage and becomes a multimillionaire. These are rare instances and are not the recommended path for most of us to follow. The positive takeaway, though, is the notion that a business plan is dynamic and you should be making adjustments as you implement your plan and learn from the results.
Most business plans have an executive summary at the beginning and financial statements at the end. In the middle are many sections that describe the business idea and provide the data for developing the financial forecasts. You have the flexibility to arrange this discussion in a logical manner that best describes the company and its operation.
There is no rule that says a business plan must be prepared in a particular way. However, if you use a format/design very different from what your audience is used to, they may find it too difficult or time consuming to read your plan. Make it organized, clear, and purposeful. It helps to know your audience and what information they need to act favorably on your funding request.
For example, a banker wants to know how much money is requested, what it will be used for, how long the funding is needed for, and reasonable projections that you will have the resources to repay the loan in full.
Hence they focus on the financial statements. An angel investor wants to know that the business can grow and there is an exit strategy in three to five years when he/she can achieve a three- to five-times return. Angel investors and venture capitalists focus on many things, but number one is the entrepreneur and his/her management team—do they have the experience and capability to lead and substantially grow this company to success over several years? Visual business plans—with lots of charts and pictures—are a relatively new trend. This might be a good approach to help you visualize the entirety of your business idea, but traditional funding sources are not yet into these types of formats.
Using charts and graphs in a traditional business plan format is a good idea, as they are visually pleasing and sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. However, make sure the subject of the graph or chart is worth showing and it tells a compelling message. As we will see, a good executive summary is a maximum of two pages, so there is no room for frivolous charts in this section.
Common to all business plan styles is having a clear message—the elevator pitch.
Be able to explain clearly and succinctly what customer problem you are solving, why your solution is better than current alternatives, what tasks are necessary for the business to succeed, what the value is to investors, and, most important, why you will be successful. Some people call these statements the “value proposition,” used by you to focus your marketing approach and by lenders and funders to determine if you have a clear understanding and path forward for your business.
Design your business plan in a manner that best demonstrates and explains your business idea.
To write or not to write the business plan yourself and where to find information and resources to help you out if you choose to tackle it on your own is the focus of this chapter. The “Write” Move?
Of course, the ultimate in help is to have someone write your business plan for you. Simply do a web search for “someone to write my business plan,” and you will receive hundreds of offers to write your plan by people who claim to have experience in your industry.
Of course, they offer testimonials from satisfied clients, all communications will be by email and phone, and the cost will range from $2,000 to $20,000. However, getting a ghostwriter for your business plan is not generally the best idea.
While you might get a good-looking document and it will involve less sweat equity, you will have not been through the process, which was mentioned earlier as the true benefit.
Without your input, it will be a canned write-up anyone can use, which will not take into consideration your unique situation or what competitive advantages you might have or need to profitably take business away from competitors.
If you are going to supply all the information, you might as well write the plan yourself. An exception to the no-ghostwritten rule is if you need a big, formal plan to secure funding and you are not proficient in English; in that case, hire someone to help you edit the plan, but you better understand everything it contains.
DIY Business Planning
If you choose to write your own business plan a lot of help is available.
For free face-to-face mentoring assistance, try these sources:
SCORE at www.score.org. Click on “Find Your Local Chapter,” and enter your ZIP code, or scroll down the page. If the locations cited appear too far away, call and see if they have a branch office closer to you. If it’s still too far, click on “Find a Mentor” and then “Communications Options” to find a mentor whom you can work with via email. In addition to mentoring, SCORE offers online and in-person workshops, webinars, podcasts, templates, blogs, and tips on many start-up and small business subjects. Small Business Administration at www.sba.gov.
The SBA website has pertinent information about starting a business and doing business with the federal government. Small Business Development Centers at
www.asbdc-us.org. In the “Get Started” block, enter your ZIP code. Women’s Business Centers (about 100 centers nationwide, serving both women and men):
Find the one closest to you at:
As stated in the book’s introduction, the internet is a 24/7 reference source—use it. Go to Amazon.com or another book seller, and in the books category, type in something like “how to start a [put in the type of business you want to start or are in].” Since virtually every type of business has already been started by someone else, this search will almost always produce a number of results. After looking at each book’s table of contents, you will find one or two that seem potentially helpful.
Buy one or two used, and for about $10, you can get a couple of books that will be of great help. The 50-plus titles in the Business Start-up Guide Series, published by Entrepreneur Press, are an excellent source of industry information.
They can be ordered on Amazon.com or directly through Entepreneur.com, or some SCORE offices have them to lend. Another idea is to use a search engine like Google or Yahoo; in the search field, type in “Free Business Plan for [put in the type of business you want to start or are already in].”
If you do not find a business plan exactly like what you need, you will find some that are close. Focus on how the author developed the content rather than the multicolored pie charts and graphs. Your mission is to learn from someone who has been down this road before, not to copy. Finally, many companies that are interested in attracting small business customers have content on their websites to cater to the small business market.
They do not just provide information about the company’s products and services but how to start and operate a successful business. Check out websites from financial institutions, credit card processors, and supply companies of many types. One company that is focused on helping small businesses is Deluxe Corp.
You might know them as producers of bank checks, but now they do much more with information on brand identity, email marketing, social media management, and more. Another example of a large company thinking small is American Express, with their American Express Open program focused on small businesses. GrowBiz Media is a small business providing news, trends, tool kits, and information to other small businesses on its SmallBizDaily website (www.smallbizdaily.com).
You will also find good information on The UPS Store website, as it caters to many small business customers. Once you have your mentoring in place and relevant industry information, you can plug it into your business plan. Business plan templates are helpful for guiding you step by step through the writing process. If you are looking for a business plan template, a general internet search will pull up hundreds. In fact, if you go to SCORE for help, mentors will often refer you to and work with you in the organization’s templates.
To find the free templates, go to
Un conjunction with obtaining assistance from SCORE or another resource, some entrepreneurs buy either LivePlan or Business Plan Pro, both by Palo Alto Software (www.paloalto.com/business_plan_software/). However the business plan is put together—by you, by others, or as a team effort—make sure you know what is in the plan and understand the content and nuances, especially if you are applying for financing and you face a Q&A session from the lender or investor.
The internet is your library. Use it, and learn from others who have gone down this road before you. Take advantage of free services offered by SCORE, SBDC, and other organizations that focus on helping entrepreneurs to be successful.
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